Social connection and health

Although people have different levels of shyness, outgoingness, introversion and extraversion, most of us like to have friends and spend time with others. For some people, one or two good friends might be enough, and might be all they have. For others, a wider social circle is what they crave. Most of us think of friends, family and partners as important in our lives, but having social connection may affect more than we realise. Aside from the positive aspects of enjoying another person’s company, social connection plays a role in physical and psychological health and wellbeing.

Social connection is underpinned by the need for belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), theorised as an innate desire for frequent pleasant interactions with other people in stable relationships over time, characterised by persistent mutual caring. The need for close relationships is present across the lifespan, beginning in infancy with the need for attachment with a caregiver, right through to later-life, where marriage is associated with longevity. Poor or limited social connection has been associated with increased risk of dementia and earlier mortality.

Of course, other factors are likely to be involved in these associations, but independently, social connection appears to contribute to health outcomes even when other factors are taken into account. Unsurprisingly, lower social connection is associated with a host of negative affective states and poorer health outcomes. For example, loneliness is linked to psychological distress, social anxiety, avoidance of social situations and depression. Early experiences of social rejection are also linked with behavioural issues later in childhood, even when taking levels of aggression into account.

How do we increase the feeling of social connection?

Importantly, belonging and social connection improve wellbeing when felt subjectively; the perception of closeness is integral, not merely the presence or number of social relationships in an objective sense. People can feel lonely despite having friends or a partner because they still feel isolated; the relationships are there on the surface, but they’re not as close as what the person needs. This begs the question: how do we increase the feeling of social connection? How do we make friendships closer, get to know a new partner, make sure other people know we care? It’s all about intimacy, which I will discuss in the next blog post.

Giorgia Sala

Provisional Psychologist

Deakin University

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